Mr. Gustavson visits Hangzhou

We left early Saturday morning for Hangzhou, a city a little over 100 miles west of Shanghai and eight centuries ago an imperial city during the Song dynasty.  Because we had no access to the Internet on Friday evening, we did not have much opportunity to read about this city before our trip, but the maps and descriptions we had read led us to expect more of a village than a city.  When we left EFZ, our guide, Alex, said that it would take three hours to get there.  This estimate seemed excessive as we reached the outskirts of the city in less than two hours, but it took another hour and a half to reach our restaurant for lunch near the famous West Lake.  

It turns out that Hangzhou is, according to Alex, a middle-sized city of 7,000,000 inhabitants, and it fills with tourists on the weekends, especially when the temperature is approaching 80° as it was Saturday, and all of the trees and flowers are starting to bloom.  As we waited and waited in traffic, we realized that we had been living in a cocoon in Shanghai where there are relatively few cars and almost no traffic jams.  Why?  The license plate that confers the right to drive in Shanghai costs 80,000 Yuan ($13,000), or more than the cost of some cars!  We eventually reached our restaurant and there awaited Peddie students Rachel Park and Xiating Chen, also, by chance, visiting Hangzhou on this particular day.  It was a special treat to see them and spend the afternoon with them.  

After a filling lunch, we all headed to the West Lake.  There, we joined the numerous visitors, almost all of them Chinese with a few Koreans and some rare Westerners.  We moved in a dense mass of humanity which seemed inconsonant with the beauty of the lake, so it was a relief to escape the hordes to take a boat cruise around the lake.  On one side, we looked toward the high rises of Hangzhou, and on the other we looked toward the first hills we had seen during our trip because Shanghai and its surrounding area are totally flat.  The many pagodas on these hillsides or at their summits add to the charm of this scene.   The lake was full of a variety of boats, some fairly large, like ours, and motorized, others propelled almost like gondolas by a lone oarsman.  An aged Korean with a long, wispy beard joined us at the back of the boat, and Rachel translated his life philosophy to us.  Afterwards, we wandered along the lake shore and looked especially at the carp ponds before making it back to our mini-van.  We then accompanied Rachel and Xiating to their hotel and said good-bye to them. 

We stayed in the Scholars Hotel, a charming place with well-chosen works of art decorating the reception area and our rooms, with ink pens and practice sheets available in the halls and in our rooms to work on calligraphy.  At dinner, we discussed the fact that we all felt like we’d been in China for a long time, not in the sense that every day has seemed interminable, but in the sense that we have had such a dense and rich experience that we feel totally immersed in a world that just two weeks ago we could hardly imagine.  After a filling meal, we went out for some night life:  a tour of a large department store and supermarket.  At first sight, this grocery store was not vastly different from what we are used to, but the more we wandered, the more interesting things we saw:  many tanks with swimming fish, bullfrogs the size of a small dog (a slight exaggeration), vats of eels, all kinds of dried foods, especially of sea food and fish, a huge variety of fruits, some of which:  jackfruit, star fruit, and dragon fruit, were unfamiliar, and all kinds of unexpected roots and vegetables.  I don’t have names for many of them.  Most interesting, though, were the foods thought to have special medicinal properties: sea cucumber and high-grade ginseng root, which cost hundreds of dollars.  Back at the hotel, Alex gave us a lesson in Chinese calligraphy, and we all tried our hands at it.  Fortunately, our efforts were quickly absorbed by the paper and did not leave a trace, but this experience did make us all wish to learn more about this art.

The next day, the highlight of the early morning was the shower, which had a hand-held and moveable head with a strong spray and also a large, square stationary head with 169 (13x13) holes which made the shower seem like a warm and gentle mist.  When we left the hotel, we had no idea what to expect.  We went first to Lingyin Si, the most famous of the many Buddhist temples on the hillside rising up on the western side of West Lake.  At the entrance, we bumped into a courageous Ziating, who had headed out to the temple at 6:30 in the morning despite a precipitous drop in the temperature to under 50°, but her decision was a wise one because the site is remarkable, one of the most famous Buddhist complexes in China.  We first walked up the hill across from the temple and wandered down a path with many grottoes and Buddhas carved in the rocks beside and above the path.  The temple itself is vast with many buildings but most notably three temples placed one above the other on a path up the hill.  Alex said that the first one, a large, laughing Buddha with a prodigious belly represents the future and then that the next two represent first the present and then the past.  These Buddhas reigned serenely over vast halls filled with a variety of other forms of the Buddha.  Between the halls were pits with fire where pilgrims lighted sticks of wood and incense and stood in meditation and prayer.  In these temples, there was a vast sea of humanity and the general mood was serene and spiritual.  Many visitors were explicitly pilgrims with special bags to mark their status.  In contrast to most Western monasteries I have seen, this temple seemed part of the natural world surrounding it, especially because many tall trees stood within its walls.  Also within the walls was half a basketball court with regulation international lines painted on it.  I was glad to see that the monks also believe in the spiritual nature of hoops.

After leaving the temple, we headed up the hills behind it and soon found ourselves surrounded by tea plantations, quite a striking sight as the tea bushes rise in terraces up the steep hillsides.  We first ate a “farmer’s meal,” mostly with chicken and a wide variety of vegetables and then headed to a plantation to taste (and buy) some green tea, supposedly the finest in China. (There’s a picture of a sour Queen Elizabeth having tea at this farm.  Maybe she was disappointed that the Chinese do not put milk and sugar in their tea.)  This valley seemed miles away from Hangzhou because it was so green, lush, and quiet.  This is the kind of landscape one sees on Chinese scrolls.  From here, we headed back to Shanghai through a nondescript flatland with an astounding amount of construction of large apartment buildings.  After a three-hour trip, it was good to be home again.  Many students were arriving as we pulled in, so the school was again filling up for the coming week.  Tomorrow, we plan to be all day at the school.